Obama’s Defense of Surveillance

At his news conference on Friday, President Obama said of Edward J. Snowden, “I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot.” The president claims that Mr. Snowden’s actions were unnecessary and harmful and contrasts Mr. Snowden with patriotic people who protest surveillance through legal means.

But what makes a person patriotic? In a book published long before this controversy, I cited four features of a patriotic person: “Special affection for one’s country, a special identification with it, special concern for its well-being, and a willingness to sacrifice to promote the country’s good.”

Mr. Snowden has certainly made a significant personal sacrifice, and there is so far no evidence that he was motivated by anything other than concern for his country.

Whether Mr. Snowden is a patriot and whether he acted rightly are two different questions. Many patriotic people have carried out or supported actions that have been harmful to their country.

Brookline, Mass., Aug. 10, 2013